Complexity, Evaluation & Theory of Change

Complexity, Evaluation & Theory of Change

The Tavistock Institute’s contribution to current evaluation practice

This talk and discussion explored questions around complexity, systems thinking, learning and impact in contemporary evaluation practice at the Institute.

Evaluators at the Tavistock Institute, the country and worldwide are currently fascinated by the opportunities and challenges of complexity thinking. How can we assess and understand whether what we’re doing makes any difference when we accept that our interventions, and indeed the social phenomena that they are looking to address, cannot be understood by assuming linear cause and effect relationships? How do we need to think about objectivity, subjectivity and unintended outcomes when we work in a complexity space? How can we bring into this work the profound insights from Tavistock work over the last 7 decades on social systems?

This talk addressed these questions and shared with the audience conceptualisations and sense-making by Tavistock researchers / consultants of how a now well-used evaluation approach (called “theory of change”) can be a useful technique to help us all cope with and value complexity thinking in our work.


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Richard Allen is a Principal Researcher and Consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. His expertise is in working with organisations on the development and redesign of key processes particularly in relation to organisational performance management, change management, quality management, impact assessment, strategic planning, capacity building and improved customer focus. He is a trained coach and, is following the Tavistock’s tradition in socio-technical systems in making Theory of Change and Theory Based Programme Management fit with the pre-existing groups, relationships, systems and ways of working in an organisation.Dione Hills is a Principal Researcher and Consultant at the Tavistock Institute. She been at the Institute since 1986 and this is her third ‘decade’ anniversary. She is currently very involved in Cecan (centre for complexity in evaluation across the Nexus) and thinking through key concepts in complexity theory and their application to evaluation methods. Coming from 30 years at the Institute, many of the principles of complexity science are pretty familiar to her, having been surrounded by system psychodynamic, and socio technical systems thinking for much of this time, although these were not previously a central part of her work.Kerstin Junge is a Principal Researcher and Consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations where she has worked for over a decade. A political scientist by training, Kerstin also uses Tavistock Institute approaches such as group dynamics, action learning and socio-technical systems thinking in her evaluation work. Kerstin has a particular interest in evaluation methodology and has written and contributed to evaluation guidelines and methods papers for a number of Government departments and the European Commission.
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